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Women's Issues

Women in Judaism

Feminism in Judaism

Question: I am doing a term paper on how the worlds major religions restrict women. I have so far dealt with subjects like abortion, the treatment of women in the middle east, and the how Catholicism refuses women from becoming priests. I have been researching Judaism for this paper as well, and ( being Christian) I was wondering about the treatment of women in the Jewish faith.

Answer: Your question really needs a book, not a paragraph or two. There is a really excellent book that can answer most of your questions about women in Judaism. It’s called “Feminism and Judaism: Women, Tradition, and the Women’s Movement” by MICHAEL KAUFMAN. Jerusalem: Heritage Press, 1996.

I’m not sure that I agree with your premise that the world’s major religions “restrict” women. Yes, Islam does, and maybe some sects of Christianity do, but not Judaism. True, Judaism does prescribe different roles for men and women, but that is no more “restrictive” than an orchestra assigning one person to play the violin, another person to play percussion. Would the violinist complain that he is “restricted” because he doesn’t get to play the drums?

What many people don’t realize about Judaism is that it is very much a home-based religion, with by far the majority of its rites, prayers and rituals being conducted in the home (the Passover seder is the best-known example). In this regard Judaism is quite unlike those religions where the entire religion revolves around prayer services in a public setting. While communal synagogue roles are assigned to men, most other rituals and religious expressions in Judaism are either assigned to women, or are assigned to both sexes equally.

The Torah is eternal and speaks to all times and places. There have been times and places where the Torah seemed to provide women with far greater status and freedom than was the cultural norm among the surrounding gentiles, and there have been times and places—especially modern-day America—where the separation of the sexes and differing roles seem to be out of synch with the latest cultural fashions.

However it is a grave mistake to think that the Torah “restricts” women any more than it “restricts” men. What it actually does—by giving both men and women the tools to reach out to G-d in their daily lives and to transform the mundane into the transcendent—what the Torah actually does, is it liberates both women and men from earthly bounds and frees both women and men to be their truest selves.

[Reposted from the archives]

—Toby Katz

3 Follow-ups »


  1. While I am on board with the program and with you in what you wrote, I have 1 comment/question.
    You write,” Judaism does prescribe different roles for men and women, but that is no more “restrictive?? than an orchestra assigning one person to play the violin, another person to play percussion. Would the violinist
    complain that he is “restricted?? because he doesn’t get to play the drums?”

    An obvious response to that would be,that the violinist won’t complain, because he chose to play the violin, and the other chose to play percussion. Judaism does not give men and/or women that choice!

    You are correct that the orchestra analogy is imperfect, since people can’t choose whether to be men or women. It is Mother Nature who decides which humans will be male and which will be female (in the orchestra analogy, it might be Mother Nature who decides whether a given person has any musical talent, or has only enough talent to be the janitor in the auditorium instead of a musician on stage). The Torah is a system that is perfectly adapted to human nature, allowing for some individual variation while also being geared to the nature of the overwhelming majority of men, and of women. I realize that the sentence I just wrote needs more explanation and examples but don’t have time now.

    As it was G-d Who created Mother Nature, and Who created us, some have compared the Torah to a “manufacturer’s manual.” The differing roles are indeed based on an initial condition (maleness or femaleness) which we don’t get to choose, but there still are different roles—which do not “restrict” one sex more than another. Also these different roles do allow for a certain amount of flexibility. (For example, women are exempt from davening with a minyan—but can go to shul if they choose.)

    If anything it is women and not men who have greater latitude in deciding whether or not they wish to take upon themselves certain mitzvos, and men who are more “restricted” in the sense that they have more mitzvos they can’t opt out of (minyan, tzitzis, tefillin, etc). Yes I know that some would consider these not “restrictions” but a pleasure and a privilege—glass half-full or half-empty depending on perception.
    —Toby Katz

    Comment by ATR — March 3, 2006 @ 2:11 pm


  2. I agree with what you’ve said so far, but would like you to address the 2 examples my constitutional law professor always cited to demonstrate how chauvinistic Judaism is. He cited the doubled time for purification following the birth of a female child as compared to a male child in Leviticus 12:1-5 and what purports to be a common prayer where the speaker is thankful he was not born a woman.

    I should first comment that, compared to the author of the article you point to (Mrs. Katz) I am inherently unsuitable for this task as I’m a man. Whatever I say will likely be discounted somewhat as a result. Still, it’s never stopped me in the past�

    Here’s one preliminary observation: even if you proved Judaism chauvinistic by contemporary standards, it would amount to very little in the greater scheme of things unless you could also demonstrate that that presents some objective problem. You or I may not like chauvinism, but should that personal preference be the final arbiter
    of absolute good and evil? Should God care about such feelings? For more on this subject, you might like to read an essay I once wrote on subjectivism and religion (http://www.ncf.ca/~es625/essay/subjectivity).

    Specific to your question, I should think your professor could have found far more obvious examples of bias in Torah than the purification periods. If you’d really like, I could probably gather together at least thirty that seem (to me, at least) far more one-sided than that one. I have heard a rather strained rationalization for this particular discrepancy, but it sounds a bit too close to apologetics for my taste. I prefer to leave things simple: men and women are
    biologically, physically, psychologically and socially different (not better or worse, just different). So why shouldn’t religious principles reflect that?

    Regarding the blessing “Who has not created me a woman” it is not universal (women recite it as “Who created me according to His will”). It is, however, obviously biased and I won’t claim otherwise. But besides the general allowance I’ve offered above for such bias, I can add here that my gratitude for having been thus created does not necessarily imply that womanhood is a worse condition, but that there are certain advantages in being the way I am. Tongue in cheek, one rabbi used to explain that thanking God for not being a woman makes
    sense if for no other reason than that we have usable pockets!

    With my regards,
    Rabbi Boruch Clinton

    Ottawa, Canada

    Comment by ATR — March 19, 2006 @ 11:05 pm

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